Tories in Turmoil: The smack of firm self-destruction

The Week In Parliament
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The Independent Online
THE WEEK was an unexpected triumph for Tony Blair and a total disaster for William Hague.

Instead of a hard time over tax harmonisation, Mr Blair scored an unexpected win, with the Tories in a crisis over the Upper House. He also has the extra bonus of additional legislation, which he thought would have to wait for a later session. In every respect the Prime Minister will be laughing all the way to the statute book.

The Tories, meanwhile, were in disarray. The words shambles, confusion, farce and disaster come nowhere near to describing their plight. For Tory MPs it was difficult to fathom what had gone wrong. At first they were content to back Mr Hague's line of demonising Lord Cranborne as a bounder who had acted out of self-interest to save the skins of the Cecils and a few of their aristocratic chums in a dirty deal with the Labour enemy.

A deal, furthermore, that had been sealed over drinks at 10 Downing Street, without the permission of their boss.

But they were open-mouthed when told that Mr Hague had agreed to Lord Cranborne's successor taking the job only if the peers could still support the deal.

While most MPs concede that Lord Cranborne had behaved, as he admitted himself, "outrageously", a minority later indicated that Mr Hague's "smack of firm leadership" reputation had been bought at too high a price.

As the fog lifted, Tory MPs surveyed a scene of political carnage. Peers were resigning or defecting by the hour. There was a Lords versus Commons war. The trouble was that it was between Tory MPs and Tory peers.

Inexperience was regarded as the chief culprit by some senior backbenchers.

Nicholas Soames, the aristocrat MP for Mid Sussex, summed up the mood of several long-serving Members: "I am deeply unhappy and profoundly embarrassed by the antics of this party," he said, making clear that the loss of Lord Cranborne was a disaster. If there really was no alternative to removing Lord Cranborne, a wiser head might have allowed him to resign. This would have protected his dignity in the eyes of those sensitive Lords for whom the word "sacking" is deeply offensive.

The "dismissal" of the Tories' principal hereditary peer leaves too much messy blue blood over too much crimson carpet.

But where are the Tories left now? The survivors have joined surrender talks on the government benches. The enemy will dictate the terms of the peace.

WAS THE Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in the know about the deal Lord Cranborne was doing behind William Hague's back? During the Queen's Speech debate he produced a pamphlet, published in 1981 by the former "Blue Chip" group of new Conservative MPs which said: "Hereditary peers no longer command enough respect from the nation as a whole to justify their exercise of legislative power." The paper was written by, among others, Robert Cranborne.

Mr Straw had also found a speech, made in 1980 by a young Conservative called William Hague, in which he described hereditary peers as "silly".

DURING THE night of the Tory turmoil over Lord Cranborne's sacking, Kenneth Clarke was relaxing in his usual laid-back way, quaffing champagne in the Members' Smoking Room. Presumably he was celebrating the narrow escape he had last year when he nearly became Tory leader. There is no way, at the moment, that he is anxious to be in William Hague's shoes - Hush Puppies are much more comfortable - but then, who knows? If duty calls ...

TOP OF the class for the most assiduous and expensive questioner is Norman Baker (Lib Dem, Lewes). On one day alone he tabled 32 written questions. This week he elicited from the Cabinet Office that severance pay to former Labour ministers came to pounds 106,652. The biggest pay-outs went to Harriet Harman, David Clark and Ron Davies, who each received pounds 11,300.

But it is not just big numbers that attracts Mr Baker's attention. He asked the Foreign Office to supply the name of the oldest bottle of wine in its cellars. (Chateau Latour 1955). And the most expensive bottle bought since Labour came to power (Chateau Latour Petrus 1995 - pounds 37.60 inc VAT).

Mr Baker has tabled over 1,400 questions since he was elected last year. Answering a written question, according to the Treasury, costs pounds 112. The cost of his scrutiny, so far, exceeds pounds 160,000.

The Foreign Office wine cellar looks positively frugal by comparison.